It was the deciding play of the game.
With just over three minutes remaining in overtime of the Broncos – Patriots Sunday night classic, Patriots punter Ryan Allen sent a punt high into the 20 mile per hour winds to an awaiting Wes Welker. As the ball knuckled through the windy night sky Welker decided to let the ball bounce and call off his teammates, but as Tony Carter attempted to get out of the way, the ball bounced right off of his elbow and was recovered by the Patriots on the 13 yard line. They took the break and easily converted it into a game winning field goal.
The Broncos had just sacrificed a 24-point halftime lead to the Patriots; emotions were running high, Twitter was instantly filled with hundreds of angry tweets, looking for somebody to blame for the debacle on the punt. Some blamed Welker, saying he should have stepped up and caught the ball, or that he was too late to give Carter the call of “Peter!” — the alert to get out of the way of the ball — possibly right. Others blamed Carter saying he broke a cardinal rule of punt return that is never cross in front of the return man, also possibly right. But all of these angry tweets failed to acknowledge the real person at fault for the play, Jack Del Rio.
Ever since a college game in 2012 I began to question if the risk of having a punt muffed was always worth the reward of a possible return. It was the Rocky Mountain Showdown and the Colorado Buffs’ D.D. Goodson muffed a punt with 43 seconds remaining in the half that was recovered for a touchdown, a momentum-changing play in a game that the Colorado State Rams eventually won. Much like that one, last night’s situation was a perfect example of why sometimes the risk is too high. Del Rio should have instead sent all 11 men for the block, and dared the rookie punter to pin the ball deep if he could get it off at all.
The biggest job of a coach in any sport is to make sure they put their players in a position to succeed, but in this case Welker, Carter and company were put in a position to fail.
Punts had been causing problems for returners all night. The freezing temperatures and high winds, mixed with the fact the Allen is a left footed punter which puts a spin on the ball that most players aren’t used to, should have made the decision obvious. A simple look at the best and worst case scenarios makes that clear.
Best case scenario with a return man: Welker takes the punt to the house against his former team and is the hero. This scenario is highly unlikely given the field position that New England was in causing the punter to try and go for hang time in order to force a fair catch.
Worst case scenario with a return man: Welker decides not to catch it and Tony Carter… Oh yeah, exactly what happened Sunday night.
Best case scenario with no return man: The extra man going for the block is too much for the offensive line the Broncos bust through, block the punt and return it for a touchdown. This scenario is also highly unlikely as the Patriots are able to split players wide which the Broncos will have to cover in case of a fake.
Worst case scenario with no return man: The punter lays out a perfect hit and rolls is down to the one yard line, putting the Broncos back’s against the wall.
For the sake of this conversation we will say that the middle ground scenario for both cases is the Broncos getting the ball on the 10 yard line.
With the rewards being essentially the same and equally as unlikely (both happening just .03 percent of the time this year for the Broncos), you have to look at the discrepancy in the worst case scenario. This doesn’t apply in all cases, but with the miserable conditions that were in play last night, the likelihood of a worst case scenario was sky high.
Something else to keep in mind when looking at these scenarios is how well the Broncos were running the ball Sunday night. Their front line was dominating the Patriots to a point where being pinned deep in their own territory wasn’t quite as deadly as it could be on another night.
When weighing the pros and cons of both options, it seems like an obvious decision to not send a returner back in the adverse conditions that were present in the game. Had this decision been calculated correctly, the Broncos might have woken up Monday morning at 10-1.
Follow Ryan on Twitter (@RyanKoenigsberg).